A recently published editorial on ComicBook.com identified actress Gal Gadot, known for her lead role in ‘Wonder Woman’, as a person of color. As luck would have it, the author approvingly cited a piece I wrote in January to make his case. Yet the “anti-racist” left, whose relationship with the Jewish community can best be described as “troubled”, could not help but demonstrate its glaring blind spot where Jewish origins and Jewish suffering are concerned. This is something the broader Jewish community has known about for years.
Correspondingly, the reactions on Twitter were what I expected: a melange of curiosity and enriched perspective offset by heaps of seething outrage animated either by ignorance or deep-seated anti-Semitism — usually both. Jews are a historically persecuted and displaced Middle Eastern ethnicity indigenous to Israel, as well as one of the oldest and most continuous victims of European colonialism. However, the “anti-racist” left is generally hostile to Jews (particularly Ashkenazim aka Jews who wound up in Central and Eastern Europe as a result of colonialism) identifying as Middle Eastern, as a people of color, or even as a minority at all. Most of the tweets that I read only seemed to prove my point. Take this gem for instance….
That said, there were some meatier challenges to be found, which I will address below. Ultimately, I stand by everything that I said in my previous article, now with even more confidence and certainty than I had prior to reading these responses.
First, I will turn my attention towards SI Rosenbaum, whose string of tweets in response to my arguments were shared widely. To begin, she correctly alleges that the distinction between “whites” and “POC” is “not a dichotomy. It’s not all about melanin, though that’s part of it; it’s also about personal history and heritage. It’s about where your ancestors were when those race categories got handed down by the Inquisition in 1492”.
Now let us take a look at the history and heritage of Ashkenazi Jews. An indigenous people of the Middle East, Ashkenazi Jews were driven out of their homeland by European (and later Arab) colonists and taken as slaves to Europe where they were consistently regarded as savages, periodically massacred, and excluded from society on the grounds that they are a foreign, non-Christian, and non-European (or in the words of our European oppressors: Oriental/Asiatic) presence on European soil. The above-mentioned race categories created during the Inquisition were really a direct response to the possibility that the Spanish crown hadn’t successfully expelled ALL of the Jews and Moors in their midst. As such, an edict called “limpieza de sangre” (“purity of blood”) was made law, wherein anyone of non-European descent (i.e. Jewish or Arab-Moor) was given the ultimatum of conversion to Christianity or death. And even those Jews who did convert were still viewed with suspicion, and treated as second class. The rest of Europe adopted very similar laws, and many exiled Sephardim wound up migrating East, where they joined their Ashkenazi co-ethnics.
The acknowledgement that Ashkenazim are non-European/non-white, which really dates all the way back to the pre-Christian era, continued to pervade Western society into the Enlightenment era and beyond. A few choice quotes from some of the more notable European philosophers (as well as some who are less notable) should prove instructive….
“the Hebrews, a very recent people…an Arab horde”. ~ Voltaire, referring to the Jews in op. cit., “Genèse”.
“The Palestinians living among us have, for the most part, earned a not-unfounded reputation for being cheaters, because of their spirit of usury since their exile. Certainly, it seems strange to conceive of a nation of cheaters; but it is just as odd to think of a nation of merchants, the great majority of whom, bound by an ancient superstition that is recognized by the State they live in, seek no civil dignity and try to make up for this loss by the advantage of duping the people among whom they find refuge, and even one another. The situation could not be otherwise, given a whole nation of merchants, as non-productive members of society (for example, the Jews in Poland). So their constitution, which is sanctioned by ancient precepts and even by the people among whom they live (since we have certain sacred writings in common with them), cannot consistently be abolished — even though the supreme principle of their morality in trading with us is “Let the buyer beware.” I shall not engage in the futile undertaking of lecturing to these people, in terms of morality, about cheating and honesty. Instead, I shall present my conjectures about the origin of this peculiar constitution (the constitution, namely, of a nation of merchants).” ~ Immanuel Kant, from “Anthropology from the Pragmatic Viewpoint”, quoted by Misrahi, p. 149.
“The Jewish people is and remains in Europe an Asiatic people alien to our part of the world” ~ Johann Gottfried Herder, “Behkerung der Juden”, Adrastea 4 (1802), p. 145.
“cowardly and degraded Asiatics”. ~ Baron d’Holbach, referring to the Jews, as is quoted in Leon Poliakov, “De l’antisionisme à l’antisémitisme”, Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1969, p. 164.
“The Jew is the enemy of the human race. This race must be sent back to Asia or exterminated”. ~ Pierre Joseph Proudhon, “Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon”, ed. Stewart Edwards, trans. Elizabeth Fraser (New York: Anchor Books, 1969), p. 228.
“In almost all parts of Europe the laws and the entire constitution of the state seek to prevent as much as possible any increase in the number of those unfortunate Asiatic refugees, the Jews. Should these hardworking and good citizens be less useful to the state because they come from Asia, because they differ from others in their beards, circumcision and the particular way of worshiping the supreme being they have inherited from their oldest ancestors?” ~ Christian Wilhelm Dohm, “On the Civic Improvement of the Jews”, 1781.
True enough, all but one of those acknowledgements came packaged with gross antisemitism, but recognition of Jewish origins, identity, and heritage was never the exclusive purview of antisemites. Rather, it is an empirical fact of history – supported by reams of scholarship, archaeological evidence, and DNA studies – which had always been accepted by philosemites as well, and still is (a cornucopia of examples can be found here). The fact that Jews writ large are not racially European (i.e. white), but rather an indigenous Middle Eastern/”Oriental” people who are cousins of the Arabs, was common knowledge until the 1960s. And this knowledge only became obscured with the concomitant rise of anti-Zionist ideology, which rests on denying Jewish indigeneity to the Middle East and, by extension, our right to be there at all (at least as something other than “inferior dhimmi”). Furthermore, in this new era of political correctness, and with full knowledge that Jews stood much to gain from the Western left’s newfound respect for indigenous rights and protection of disadvantaged minorities, those whose hearts continued to smolder with antisemitism changed course and cast Jews as “white Europeans”, thereby allowing them to continue ostracizing us a backwards, oppressive, powerful, and malignant force.
Back to Rosenbaum, she goes on to assert that Ashkenazim enjoy all of the “regular privileges” white people do, which is false. She is conflating the ability to pass (a common trait for certain POC groups, especially other Middle Easterners – Jews aren’t “special” here) with actually being white, despite her earlier concession that they’re not the same thing. Yet for unclear and contradictory reasons (beyond inane, unsupported platitudes like “antisemitism is not racism”), she insists on holding Jews to a very different set of standards. Granted, some Ashkenazim – as well as some non-Ashkenazim – do have ambiguous or ostensibly “white” facial features, which are mainly the result of Cossack rapes during pogroms, and can therefore camouflage themselves, but a very large number cannot. As can be seen in the link I just posted, many either have a “Jewish” appearance, or a full blown Middle Eastern one. Moreover, having to hide one’s ethnic background just to be treated as a “normal” human being is not privilege, because white people (*actual* white people, not Jews, Arabs, etc) don’t have to do this. They don’t need to change their names, or flatten their noses, or bleach their skin, or straighten their hair, or take their kippahs off, etc. The fact that Ashkenazim, and white passing Jews in general, need to *work* just to be seen as regular people really says it all, and many (if not most) don’t even have the ability to do that. It’s simply not comparable.
More to the point, Jews are perhaps the oldest victims of what has come to be known as Orientalism. From the Greek and Roman colonial era where we were deemed “savages” in need of culture and enlightenment, to the evolution of these views under Christianity, to Enlightenment era Europeans openly declaring that we are Asiatics who are therefore culturally stagnant and incapable of reason, science, or progress, Orientalism has always been the bedrock of European antisemitism. These beliefs, rather than disappearing, have simply undergone further mutation in accordance with the West’s changing cultural milieus, and the classic European Orientalist perception of Jews as backwards, static, irrational, etc continues to inform antisemitism to this day. For more on that, see here.
All in all, we mustn’t make the mistake of assuming Jews enjoy “white privilege” just because our experiences are not symmetrical with those of African-Americans or Hispanics, as to do so would be unreasonable, fallacious, and hypocritical (again, no other ethnic minority is held to this standard). Anti-Jewish racism looks different because the stereotypes are different. In other words, we are not viewed by society as “uneducated thugs”, but as “dishonest”, “conniving”, “clannish”, and “bloodthirsty” mongrels who control everything behind the scenes, and these racist tropes play out in the way we are treated in this country. Moreover, we are frequently profiled at airports, viewed with suspicion when we are too successful, assumed to be in control of the US government, assaulted on the streets, typecast on TV and in movies (barring a number of exceptions) as geeks, criminals, hypochondriacs, and other stereotypes, our scalps are molested for horns by strangers, and so on and so forth.
Inasmuch as a group’s non-whiteness is contingent on their history, experiences, heritage, and relationship with the concept of “white” as defined by its pioneers, Ashkenazim certainly do qualify as a non-white people. Rosenbaum argues that whiteness vs non-whiteness is contingent on history and heritage, but despite Jews meeting every single qualifier to be considered a people of color, every single criterion down the line, she refuses to accept that we are one. Her claims that we are not a single, cohesive people of collective Middle Eastern stock is simply incorrect.
Onto the Forward article, which more blatantly advances the idea that Gal Gadot (and consequently, all Jews of Ashkenazic descent) is a white person. It would be difficult to respond to this without simply rehashing the points I already made, as author Noah Berlatsky’s views are very similar to Rosenbaum’s. But unlike Rosenbaum, Noah’s arguments invoke – intentionally or otherwise – the very popular antisemitic myth that Gadot (and presumably all Ashkenazim) is an ethnic European, not a Semite/Middle Easterner. And as I previously noted here, being exiled/taken as slaves to Europe and raped during pogroms after our land was taken from us does not make Ashkenazim white, or European. To brazenly conflate any portion of our people with those who tried for so long to erase us is one of the worst insults you could possibly hurl at a Jew. It is literally giving Europeans antisemites the very thing they’ve wanted all along – for us to be whitewashed and ultimately disappear.
That aside, Berlatsky himself doesn’t seem too sure of what whiteness actually is, wildly oscillating back and forth between “it’s all about appearance” and “it’s complicated”. For instance, he initially disputes the idea that whiteness “is an actual ethnicity or regional background”, only to later contradict himself within the same piece by declaring Gadot to be “white” because she is fair skinned and “European” (even though Ashkenazi Jews are not European – see above). He then goes on to advance the well worn analogy between Jewish experiences in North America and that of East Europeans, Italians, and Irish that we’ve all heard a million times by now. It is a ridiculous comparison for two very obvious reasons.
1. Irish people and Italians are indigenous European ethnic groups. Jews are an indigenous people of the Middle East, and if Middle Easterners writ large are considered people of color (regardless of what they actually look like), then so are Jews. Centuries of displacement from our land does not change this fact, and alleging otherwise is a form of erasure and antisemitism. To wit, although the characteristics that determined whether one is considered “Caucasian” have changed over time, “Caucasian” and “white” are more or less interchangeable and associated exclusively with Europeans, the dominant racial caste in North America. Thus, the Middle Eastern person (and by extension, the Jew) was and is not Caucasian/white.
2. Irish people and Italians no longer face marginalization or persecution as a result of their background, whereas antisemitism remains a powerful force in Western society and culture. As such, this analogy could really be said to be an outcropping of the idea that antisemitism is “over” – that it “died” after the Holocaust, which is thusly portrayed as a mere “freak incident” caused by “bad men in jackboots”, not the culmination of 2 millennia of anti-Jewish racism.
Yes, Wonder Woman is intended to be a white woman, but just because Gal Gadot landed that role doesn’t mean she’s white. It means she’s phenotypically ambiguous/light skinned enough to pass as white. Are Arabs, Latinos, Native Americans, and Iranians who look just as white as her (if not whiter) white? Or do Jews get to be special? And while we’re on the subject of phenotypes, Gadot’s physical appearance is actually very common among Levantines, Israeli or otherwise. Even Linda Sarsour (whom no one would deny is a POC) said that without the hijab, she’s just a white girl. Are Lebanese, Jordanian, and Egyptian women with a similar skin complexion/appearance white too? Or are Berlatsky’s rules for Jews only? Moreover, I tend to think that if Gadot bore a more stereotypical “white” Ashkenazi appearance (e.g. Mayim Bialik), she wouldn’t have been cast either, but that’s neither here or there.
At any rate, it is true that Middle Easterners – including Ashkenazi Jews – who had hitherto been marked as “Asian” on the US Census, petitioned to be marked as “White” in order to avoid the attendant possibility of denaturalization. But in the 21st century, an increasing number of Middle Easterners, including Jews of all diaspora backgrounds, are rejecting this classification.
One final point that deserves a rebuttal is his allegation of “European privilege” in Israel. He writes, “in Israel itself, Gadot’s skin color and European background protect her from the kind of discrimination faced by Ethiopian Jews, other dark-skinned Jews, and Palestinians”. This is nonsense. Firstly, Ashkenazim are not ethnic European, per the above arguments. Second, very few people in Israel can even tell the difference between Ashkenazim, Mizrahim (who make up more than half of Israel’s population), or Arabs, except by their names or religious headgear. Phenotypically, there is too much overlap (which is natural, given their genetic closeness and common regional origins) and making generalizations about either will lead to many embarrassing mistakes. Although there was discrimination against Mizrahim in Israel’s early years (the result of Ashkenazim being colonized and internalizing many Eurocentric ideas), and there is still discrimination against African Jews (who, despite sharing the same regional origins as other Jews, were less persecuted in diaspora and therefore intermarried more with their historic host population), casting Israel as a Middle Eastern version of the United States is categorically false.
Jews qua Jews (barring white converts like Ivanka Trump, who make up less than 1 percent of the global Jewish population) are people of color, and the fact that this is even controversial at all sheds light on how deeply entrenched antisemitism has become as once again, the Jew is being made the “other of others”.